fb-pixel Skip to main content

In high-tech Mass., voting still done on paper

The town of Plympton is one of 65 communities in Massachusetts that still counts ballots by hand, and it uses a wooden ballot box made in 1927.Plympton Town Clerk

Massachusetts prides itself on its high tech industries, but when it comes to voting the state is decidedly low-tech -- and proud of it.

All communities in the state are required to use paper ballots, and while most use mechanical scanners to tally the results, 65 towns -- including Berlin, Carlisle, Essex, and Plympton -- still count the ballots by hand.

So as election officials elsewhere in the country are anxiously wrestling with worries about computer hacking and rigged results, officials here are feeling secure, and a mite smug.

“Without fear of any contradiction there is no hacking possible in our voting processes,” Secretary of State William Galvin said in a recent interview. “Because of our diligence in having a paper system that is verifiable, it can’t be hacked.”


The optical scan system used in Massachusetts dates back to the 1960s and “reads” penciled-in choices -- similar to the way SAT tests are scored. The state has approved six models of optical scanners since 1993, the most recent iteration getting the official OK in 2014.

Galvin said he outlawed punch card ballots three years before the “hanging chads” from incompletely punched ballots in Florida roiled the 2000 presidential election. And he said he resisted the ensuing national push for computerized voting because of concern that the devices were untested and potentially unreliable and hackable.

“I felt the best situation was what we ended up with -- an actual ballot in which you can see who you are voting for and it’s retained as an individual record,” he said. If there’s a disputed close election, the ballots are available to check by hand, he said.

In tiny Berlin, voters have been dropping their paper ballots into the same wooden box since the 1920s -- and hearing a loud ding as the crank on the side of the box is turned.


Town Clerk Eloise Salls, who has been clerk since 1996, said she plans on having 25 two-person teams on hand this election to count the ballots. One team member counts in batches of 50, and the other records, and then they switch places and do it again.

“We try to keep it within the same day, but last presidential [election] we got out around 1 a.m.,” Salls said.

She’s anticipating another long night in November, predicting a record turnout -- in a town where more than 90 percent of its approximately 2,200 registered voters usually participate in presidential elections.

Plympton Town Clerk Tara Shaw said she also expects high turnout among the slightly more than 2,000 registered voters in the town of 2,800 people.

“Plympton is famous for having great turnout, and spirited residents,” she said. (The town also is famous as the birthplace of Revolutionary War patriot Deborah Sampson, who dressed as a man and enlisted to fight the British, before her identity was discovered and she was sent home with an honorable discharge.)

In Plympton, ballots go into the 1927 wooden ballot box with a wood-handled brass crank. The “Perfection” model was made in Worcester, Shaw said, and was restored in 2012 by a clockmaker in Carlisle.

Shaw said she considered going to mechanical scanning but decided against it, in part for financial reasons.


“And a lot of people feel nostalgic about the ballot box,” she said.

Nostalgia didn’t stop the town of Rockport from switching from hand ballot counting to three optical scanning machines in the spring of 2015 -- although the proposal originally failed at the spring 2014 Town Meeting, according to Town Clerk Patricia Brown.

Brown said residents worried that the machines could be tampered with, but were reassured by the New Hampshire company selling the devices, which cost about $7,000 each.

“We test 50 ballots [before an election] and do every possible scenario,” she said. ”We put them in every which way, we mark incorrectly, we over-vote. We test and compare [the results] to hand counting.

“It’s always been 100 percent accurate to this point. In fact, [the machines] did better than me. I made a mistake the first time I did it.”

Brown said the machines are locked after the testing and the results sent to the state.

She said the machines have cut the time it takes to count ballots from hours to minutes.

“In some cases, it was taking till 1 o’clock in the morning to hand count. Now if everything goes smoothly, we get unofficial results in 15 minutes,” she said. “The technology works, and it allows people to get the results quickly. And I am very happy. It saves us so much time at the polls.”


Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.